Teaching Religious Tolerance as a Component of Identity Development

June, 2015

Dr. Ozge Gurcanli

Lecturer and Research Associate, Department of Psychology

Much of the conflict in our era comes from religious intolerance. As a developmental researcher, and when I think of religious tolerance or intolerance, I inevitably think about the development of social identity; how people learn to identify themselves as a part of a gender group, ethnic group, religious group, etc. With the grant received from the Boniuk Institute, in my developmental psychology course (PSYC 321.002, Fall 2014), I had a chance to teach my students to explore the role of tolerance and how it relates to a diverse set of identities.

In the beginning of the semester, I had three major goals for my students: (1) the ability to communicate complicated scientific ideas learned in class through different media; (2) improved interpersonal communication skills through collaborative work; (3) engagement with the surrounding community as a resource for learning. My route map to achieve these goals was to give the entire class a collaborative assignment. Students in this course made a documentary on the development of identity by addressing various identity types (e.g. gender identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, etc...).

In this project-based course, students used knowledge acquired in the first part of the class, which operated like a more traditional lecture and discussion course. In order to make a successful documentary, the students were divided into teams of 5-6 students, with each member of the team taking on a specific role in the filmmaking process. For example, some individuals were in charge of organizing interviews with local experts, others worked on camera and sound, others wrote the narration for the segment, and so forth. Throughout the semester, the students learned to work with each other and developed a sense of community as an entire class of 45 (my class cap).

By using this project structure, the students chose the following sub-portions for their documentary: the development of ethnic identity in childhood and adolescence, the intersection of ethnic identity with athletic performance, the development of gender identity in childhood and adolescence, the development of religious identity, and understanding religious tolerance. Throughout the semester, before and after the production stage of the documentary, the discussion of the development of social identity inevitably translated into the discussion of the mainstream cultural role and identities, which later initiated the understanding the "other" - individuals whose social identity differs from one's own. As a result, in all portions of the documentary, the students made sure to give voice to a diverse set of interviewees. For example, they interviewed children with different ethnic backgrounds, and asked questions to their peers at Rice who hold different religious beliefs.

More importantly, the students stepped out of the classroom and also the Rice bubble, and got engaged in a broader community of researchers and experts as they worked on their documentary. For example, to understand the attitude of children towards different ethnic identities, they consulted with a 4th grade teacher, Mr. Decuir, a child psychiatrist, Dr. McGarrahan. To discuss the role of diversity and people's tendencies to have ethnic stereotypes in academic settings, they interviewed with Cathering Clack (Director of Multicultural Affairs at Rice University) and Dr. Bratter from the department of Sociology. To question the origin of the mainstream gender roles, they med with Dr. Hebl from the Department of Psychology, and Dr. Cech, from the Department of Sociology. To address the role of tolerance in identity formation, they talked to Claire Villareal, a graduate student in Religious Studies. They also consulted with many other experts as they made the connections between principles of human development and social issues that plague the modern world.

Thanks to the support of the Boniuk Institute, by the end of the semester, as my students discovered the relevance of core concepts of human development through the experiences provided by this re-designed course, I realized that when I teach students about human development, I am not only introducing them to new facts, but also I provide a new framework for thinking about themselves in relation to other individuals and groups. As a result, I believe that the lessons learned from this course, one being religious tolerance, will be retained throughout their lives.